Archive for January 2009

Crabs

20 January 2009

(An extract from ‘A Naturalist on the Prowl’ by E.H. Aitken)

A naturalist on the prowl!

Prowling on the seashore one evening, I espied another prowler, and he espied me, and avoided me as the burglar avoids the policeman. He did not run away, but just deflected his course a little, took advantage of a dip in the sandy beach, got behind a growth of screw pines and was not there. It was getting too dark to see clearly, but by these tactics I knew that he was a jackal. He had come down in the hope of catching a few crabs for his supper. Scarcely had he got himself away when, with a shrill squeak and a scrambling rush, a fat musk rat escaped from my foot into a heap of stones. What was it doing there? Hunting for crabs. Now there is something very revolting in the thought that crabs are liable to be killed and eaten by foul jackals and disgusting musk rats. The crabs are a peculiarly interesting people, like the ancient inhabitants of Mexico, unique and not to be ranked with the other tribes of the earth.

anotp-jackal-on-the-shore

Professor Owen holds that the hand of man suffices to separate him from all other animals almost as widely as any two of them differ from each other. “The consequences,” he says, “of the liberation of one pair of limbs from all service in station and progression are greater, and involve a superior number and quality of powers, than those resulting from the change of an ungulate into an unguiculate condition of limb.” Think me not a mocker if I suggest that the crab shares this endowment with man, and perhaps that is the reason why he seems to stand apart from all other creatures that are clothed with shells. By pedigree the crab, I admit, is but a prawn which has curled its tail under its stomach and taken to walking; but no one who has lived much among crabs and associated with them, so to speak, can lump them with prawns and other shell-fish good for curry. A crab is not like a lower animal. He does not seem to work by instinct. All his avocations are carried on as if he had fixed principles, and his whole behaviour is so deliberate and decorous that you feel almost sure, if you could get a proper introduction to him, he would shake hands with you.

At times I have thought I detected a broad grin on the face of an old crab, but this may be fancy. I incline to the idea, however, that he has a sense of humour. He is courageous too-not foolhardy, but wisely valiant, and marvellously industrious. Watch him as he repairs his house flooded by the tide. Cautiously he appears at the door with a great ball of sand in his arms, and erecting his eyes to see if any enemy is near, advances a few paces, lays his burden down and returns to dig. Again he appears and puts a second ball besides the first, and so on till there is a long even row of them. A second row is then laid alongside the first, then a third, and a fourth; then a passage is left, after which a few rows more are laid down. So rapidly is the work done that the tide has scarcely retired when the whole beach is chequered with flowerlike patterns radiating from a thousand holes. These are the work of infant crabs mostly, for as they grow older they venture to retire further from low water mark, where the sand is dry and will not hold together in balls. Then they bring it up in armfuls and toss it to a distance. But, old or young, their houses are swamped and obliterated twice in every twenty-four hours, and twice dug out again; from which you may judge what a life of labour the sand crab lives.

The sand crabs reach almost upto the Screw pine (Pandanus) zone.

The sand crabs reach almost upto the Screw pine (Pandanus) zone.

The sand crab...

The sand crab...

...and his labour.

...and his labour.

Plover patrol! Watch out, sand crabs!

Plover patrol (foreground)! Watch out, little sand crabs!

He is, I think, the noblest of his race. Living on the open champaign of the white sea-shore, he learns to trust for safety to the keenness of his sight and the fleetness of his limbs. Each eye is a miniature watch-tower, or observatory, and his legs span seven times the length of his body. When he runs he seems to be on wheels: you can fancy you hear them whirr. But, keen as is his sight and amazing as is his speed, he more than needs it all; for, alas! he is very tasty and all the world knows it. In his early days the sandpipers and shore birds, nay, the very crows and preh pudor! my turkey patrol the water’s edge, and he scarcely dares to show his face by daylight. Then, as he grows beyond the fear of petty enemies, he comes within the ken of greater ones. The kite, sailing high overhead, swoops like a thunderbolt and carries him off. The great kingfisher, concealed in an overhanging bough, watches its opportunity, and when he has wandered far from his hole, darts upon him and scoops him up in its long beak. The kestrel hawks him, dogs hunt him in sheer wantonness, jackals hunt him to eat him, owls lie in wait for him, and when he takes refuge in the water, an army of sharks and rays is ready for him. And man closes the list.

“These wild eyes that watch the wave
In roarings by the coral reef’

are watching mostly for crabs. He is drawn from his hole with hooks, dug out with shovels, caught in traps, netted with nets, and even in the darkness of night distracted with the sudden glare of flambeaux and knocked over with sticks.

Man - arch-enemy and predator no 1.

Man - arch-enemy and predator no 1. The crabs in the basket are Three-spotted Crabs (Portunus sanguinolentus), a swimming crab. The crabs in the basket were caught at sea by local fishermen using nets and were at Harne beach waiting to be sold. (Identification - 'Marine Life in India' by BF Chapgar.)

Many are the ways in which the race of crabs have sought to shun their thousand foes, some by watchfulness and wisdom, or cunning and skill, some along paths of degeneracy and shame. In the aeons long gone by, it seems, there lived a craven crab who condescended to seek safety by thrusting his hinder end into an empty shell, and to-day his descendants are as the sand on the sea-shore for multitude, dragging their cumbrous houses about with them and thrusting out their distorted arms to pick up food, and shrinking in again at the least sign of danger. Safety they have bought with degradation, but there are moments of supreme peril even in the base life that they lead; for the crab grows and the shell does not, and it is an inexorable law of nature that, when you change your coat, you must put off the old before you put on the new. The most ludicrous sight I ever saw was two hermit crabs competing for an empty shell. Neither of them could by any means take possession without exposing his naked and deformed posteriors to the mercy of the other, and this he dared not do; so they manoeuvred and circled round that shell and made grimaces at each other till I laughed like the blue jays in Jim Baker’s yarn.

A hermit crab (Superfamily Paguroidea)

A hermit crab (Superfamily Paguroidea)

The hermit crab drawn out in full splendour!

The hermit crab drawn out in full splendour!

Others of the race have tried to win security by burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of the sea and stretching out their beggar hands for food. The hands work hard, but the stomach is starved, and in some of this family the body has dwindled into a mere appendage to a great pair of claws. Of these is the giant from Japan, whose grim skeleton, eleven feet in stretch of limb, adorns the walls of the Bombay Natural History Society. Smaller specimens are common about Bombay.

The Japanese spider-crab (Macrocheira kaempferi), largest known arthropod.

The Japanese spider-crab (Macrocheira kaempferi), largest known arthropod.

Then there are crabs which make their backs a garden and grow seaweeds and even anemones, under whose umbrageous shelter they roam about the bed of the ocean in aesthetic security.

Midway between the mud crabs and the sand crabs is one whose ingenuity and adroitness rescue it from contempt. Its hind legs are transformed into an absurd pair of shovels, and the length of its eyes is simply ridiculous. If you have patience to sit perfectly motionless for a time at some spot in Back Bay where the retreating tide has left a dead level of oozy slime, you will see a hundred of these little blueish creatures moving about and collecting some form of nourishment from the mud with their quaint and crooked claws; but move’ a hand, and presto! they are gone. In an instant they have put themselves under the mud and left nothing, except perhaps the points of their long eyes, in the air.

A Fiddler Crab.... a mere appendage to a great pair of claws.

A Fiddler Crab.... a mere appendage to a great pair of claws.

Then there is the Calling Crab, which has fostered one hand until it has grown into a veritable Roman shield, behind which the owner may shelter himself, calmly taking his food with the other. How these hold their own I cannot tell. They are not strong, nor yet swift, nor wary; but wherever the sand is soft and black, they people the shore in countless numbers. It may be that that blazing muster of gaunt, mailed hands in orange and red, ceaselessly beckoning to all the world to come, tries the courage even of a hungry crow. I am inclined to think this is the explanation of the matter, for I have often seen one of the feeblest of the mud crabs collect in dense squadrons and perform long journeys over the open shore, with nothing to protect them from wholesale slaughter unless it was the fear inspired by such an ominous mass of legs and arms.

Sally Lightfoot! The agile Red Rock Crab (Grapsus grapsus)

Sally Lightfoot! The agile Red Rock Crab (Grapsus grapsus)

Where the foaming waves dash themselves against rugged rocks and moss-clad boulders, with black fissures between, and here and there a clear pool, tenanted by anemones and limpets and a quivering, darting little fish, chafing in prison till the next tide shall come and set it free, there the sand crab is replaced by the crab of the rocks, most supple-limbed of living things. How it turns the corner of a mossy rock, as slippery as that

“plug of Irish soap
Which the girl had left on the topmost stair,”

and awaits unmoved the onset of a great wave, then resumes its meal, daintily picking off morsels of fresh moss with its hands and putting them into its mouth. A life of constant watchfulness it lives and hourly peril, as many an empty shell in the pool bears witness. Its direst enemy, I believe, is the ghastly octopus, that ocean spider, lurking in crack or crevice, with deadly feelers extended, alive to their very tips and ready for the THE SWIMMING CRAB unwary. That this gelatinous goblin should be able to master the mail-clad warrior is wonderful but true. All his armour and his defiant claws avail nothing against the soft embrace of eight long arms and the kiss of a little crooked beak.

anotp-the-swimming-crab

Though their proper home is the border line between land and water, the crabs have pushed their conquests over nature in all directions. Some swim in the open sea, their feet being flattened into paddles, and these are horribly armed with long and sharp spines for the correction of greedy fishes. They have been found in the Bay of Biscay, a hundred miles from land, and are common on the coasts of England, where they are said to kill large numbers of mackerel. Bombay fishermen often find them in their nets. Other crabs inhabit the forests, climbing trees. Of these we have one beautiful species, all purple and blue.

The tree climbing Coconut Robber (Birgus latro)

The tree climbing Coconut Robber (Birgus latro)

Others have their home in the fields, lying buried during the months of drought, and coming to life when the rain has softened the earth. They love the rain, and often have I drawn them from their holes by means of a fraudulent shower from a watering can. Slowly the poor dupe comes out to enjoy it, and when his feet show themselves at the door, you can thrust in a trowel and cut off his retreat. Then he knows he has been fooled, and backing into a corner, extends his great claws and defies the world.

Did you ever see a motherly land crab with all her children about her, leading them among the tender grass on which they feed, like a hen with her chickens, and when their little legs are weary, gathering them into her pouch and carrying them home? It is a pretty picture, and I wish I could paint in the father of the family; but the truth must be told, and I am afraid that when he meets with his offspring, he runs them down and eats them. At least I saw such a chase once. Never did crab flee as that little one fled from the chela sequentes of his dire parent. He doubled and dodged and ran again, but all in vain! He was caught and nipped in two. Then came Nemesis in the form of my dog, and the pursuer was pursued. In his flurry he lost his way, and darting into the wrong hole, all but fell into the arm~ of a bigger crab than itself. Darting out again, he was instantly crushed by a great paw.

You may ask how I know that the big crab was father of the little one. I do not know that he was; but what does it matter? He did not know he was not.

A family meal!

A family meal!

Image credits & licensing information :

  • Note. This document is published under Gnu Free Documentation License.
  • Line drawings F.C. McRae in the original print of E.H. Aitken’s ‘A naturalist on the prowl’ and are accordingly public domain.
  • Photos of screw-pines, sand crabs, plover patrol, crabs in basket – self. [Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 with Self-attribution].
  • Remaining photos taken from Wikimedia Commons. Please search among category ‘Crabs’ for the source images originals and their exact license restrictions.

Note 2. After I had written this blog, I realised that I had bought a natural history book some time ago about creatures of the sea. I dug it up from my book box and began reading it. I was surprised – here was so much that I wanted to learn and and all the while the book was waiting patiently for me to fetch it from its place. I’m referring to  ‘Marine Life in India‘  written by B.F. Chapgar, the renowned Indian marine biologist and doyen of the BNHS. Published as recently as 2006, it is written in a very easy to read and understand style, with nice photographs, lots of small chapters each concerning a group of animals or aspect of sea life and lots and lots of line-diagrams. If this blog about crabs interested you, and you are an amateur naturalist in India who would like to learn more about this fascinating new world, don’t have second thoughts but go out and get your own copy! It costs Rs 350/- which is not costly for such a book by today’s standards.

Disclaimer. Please note I have no commercial considerations with Oxford University Press and I am not unfortunately personally acquainted with the author.

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Edward Hamilton Aitken – A Nature Writer in the Indian Countryside

17 January 2009
A low resolution black-and-white image of a bald man with a beard and kindly smile sitting at a desk with pen held in his right hand.

Edward Hamilton Aitken

One of the finest examples of nature writing is surely that of ‘EHA’. Edward Hamilton Aitken (1851-1909) was born in India, lived and taught in Bombay and Pune and also served in Kharaghoda (Gujarat), Ratnagiri, Uran and North Kanara as a government servant.

EHA had a keen eye for nature, whether unusual or common-place, and a delightful turn of phrase. His nature missives tell much about the man – his keen sense of observation, his delight in the small secrets that nature reveals, his wry sense of humour. Today, his work is in the public domain and one can download copies of his books from the internet. Penguin India has now come up with reprints of two books – his best , namely ‘A Naturalist on the Prowl’ and ‘The Tribes on my Frontier’. Slim, beautifully produced, hard-bound volumes costing a measly Rs 225/- each, these are invaluable additions for anyone who maintains a small and discerning collection of wildlife books. He ranks amongst the great nature-writers in India.

As my friend Shyamal said “Books with tiny illustrations are often good reading” – EHA’s books prove this new adage to be true!

Since there is a delightful review of Eha on Wikipedia, let me lighten my load, good reader and take you to meet him over there.

You can of course download his work from the following links :

1. Books by E.H. Aitken at Project Gutenberg and
2. Books by E.H. Aitken at www.archive.org.

or you can visit “My online library”.

Opening page of ''The Tribes on my Frontier''

Opening page of ''The Tribes on my Frontier''

In this blog, you will find two of my tributes to him – a small piece of humour below, which I wrote,  fully charged, when I had just finished reading his ‘Tribes on my Frontier’ and for which, as a tribute to him, I kept the same title .

The second (since published here) is a chapter of ‘Naturalists on the Prowl’ reproduced with his illustrations but with some of my photos, and hopefully some other people’s too, on the prosaic group of animals called ‘crabs’.

Expect to find more exposures to nature writers on this blog. With these small ‘plugs’ I encourage you to enjoy their work and hope to accordingly increase your love for nature.

A starling with tail cocked high follows a blackbird with tail tucked in.

My Secret Garden

16 January 2009

It was a childhood wish of mine to have a secret garden all to myself. I did realise the dream when I was much older and the garden I had then was not quite secret; no garden of a commanding officer’s house can ever be so, no matter how small. Despite this, it contained a secret world which was invisible to all who passed through or passed by but was always available to me whenever I wanted to place the cares of office behind and was ever a source of delight and fascination.

My secret garden

My secret garden

As gardens go, it was a slip of one, hardly 20 yards by 25 yards, just large enough to form the facade of the small two-roomed bungalow in the desert of Jaisalmer where I lived. Indeed it had only a single tree, a patch of grass, some creepers on the fence and a few potted plants but it was peopled by creatures who gave me small glimpses of their lives.

My day begins early, the ploonk plink of bulbuls and the caw caw caw of the crows is infinitely preferable to waking up with the help of an alarm clock. It is just after dawn, the sky is still grey as the sun has not risen over the dunes at the horizon and the breeze which blows cross the sand is still cold. The last vestiges of night-life can occasionally still be seen. Today, a flicker of movement at the corner of my eye causes me to turn my head, just in time to catch a last glimpse of the tail of the large desert monitor (Varanus griseus) who lives behind my bungalow in a hole amidst a tangle of barbed wire. He has a regular nocturnal beat at this time of the year which takes him through the matchbox-sized gardens of the three bungalows side-by-side, then around the large store-house, into the transport yard, across the bordering dune, and back along it on the far side till he rounds the dune, crosses a road and is back into the tiny gardens.

Sometimes, late at night I find a large, prickly and wicked looking arthropod, the solifuge, who patrols my garden each night for insects and small life. Of him, I have written elsewhere.

The hedgehog creeps by night!

The hedgehog creeps by night!

About him and the Varanus, the hedgehog does not know or care, for about once a fortnight, he pays me a visit.

It is always dark when he comes for a sip of water from the squirrel-bowl. He easily finds his way in but for some reason stumbles on his way out and so I notice him. He scrambles between the bowl and fence but there is no exit there. He tries the jird’s hole but I lift him and place him on the road outside my bungalow free to go where he wills.

He is easily trapped, and since taking a good picture is difficult, so one day, I catch him and keep him till day-time when I photograph him.

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehogs are difficult to identify and my guides are not quite comprehensive and the descriptions not specific enough, so, like a lot of amateur naturalists, I call it an Indian Hedgehog and leave it at that.

Night too leaves behind a few small villains, who now appear or can be found where they were not present the previous evening. I am referring, of course, to the scorpions who have the knack of turning up where you never expected to find it – on the outside of the ‘macchar-dani’ (mosquito net), in the folds of the towel on the rack, three feet above the ground or in your boots, the one day you forget to check. Then, its a ”EEYOWW’ followed by the immediate,abrupt and merciless extinction of the perpetrator and later on a local anaesthetic and some salve. A few bites later, you realise it was the fright and unexpectedness which raced your heart more than the pain and it was your ego that required the balm more than the sting.

Curses! Discovered again!

Curses! Discovered again!

Fortunately, I have never found, horror of horrors, the arch-villain, in my shoes or garden – the saw-scaled viper. I’m sure he must be there for my garden is fenced with old duck-boards standing upright, but I never saw him. Nearby yes, but never in my garden.

But lets put these night-time experiences away, for the sun has peeped over the dunes. At this time, strangely, it is not the birds that draw you but the bees. For my garden boasted two hives of bees. They appeared almost together one year after the winter had passed. The largest was in the tree and belonged to Apis florea, the Dwarf Honey Bee. The second hive in the thatch of my garden fence behind a bamboo ‘patti’ screen was the hive of Apis cerana, the Asiatic honeybee. For a brief period these hives flourished, each oblivious of the other, and just as suddenly died out in the autumn. But while they were there, the humming of bees around the sunlit portulacas gave an almost-ethereal feeling to me drowsing in my plastic garden-chair under the tree.

The hive in the tree!

The hive in the tree! (Apis florea)

The hive in the thatch.

The hive in the thatch. (Apis cerana)

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The authorities pipe water twice a day, once in the early morning and once ofter dark. So in between these times, you are dependent on water in the roof tanks and stored water in the bathroom buckets. Water is life in the deserts. The pipeline supplying the garden has a small leak at the place where it bends around the garden corner and there it leaks. Each morning, the garden creatures are treated for an hour or so to a thin lamellar flow across a patch of cemented pavement. I have forbidden its repair so that the creatures can get their small but just desserts!

The bees buzz here across the garden from the hive , and like teenagers wearing many pocketed jeans, they pick up water in the small cups or satchels on their legs and take off for the hive. I imagine this water is used to keep the queen and the larvae air-conditioned through the summer. The bees drink greedily of this water and long after it has stopped they crowd the fence, pipe, wet gravel and moist soil with an unquenchable appetite.

Its not just humans who store water each day!

Its not just humans who store water each day! (Apis cerana)

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water.

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water. (Apis cerana)

Seeing this and the fact that their presence kept some small creatures away I added two more sources of water. A pot of water hung from a tree branch for the birds and bees and a earthen water-bowl for the squirrels, jirds and other creatures at ground level. Since I was watering them, I decided to feed them, so I added a small wooden feeding tray. The carpenter was so gratified at being asked to do so noble a task that of his own he added a bird-house to the tray. I did’nt have the heart to put him right but gave him an extra shabash! Anyway, the bees now started raiding the water-pot in the mid-morning and afternoons too!

Bees besiege the suspended matka

Bees besiege the suspended matka

The white-eared bulbuls (Pycnonotus leucotis) who wake me are not the bulbuls one meets elsewhere in India but are of the white-cheeked variety but without the pointed crests that their cousins from the hills sport. Earlier considered a subspecies, I am told they have been promoted to the rank of a separate species.

The handsome desert bulbul!

The handsome bulbul of the desert!

They fly around, peck at things, warble in the bushes, or on the fence and provide a running commentary on all that’s happening throughout the day. They, along with the squirrels and jirds are my constant companions and I love them dearly. Indeed, one pair did try to nest in the thatch fence but they abandoned the attempt due to a unseasonal heatwave. I pamper them with choicest grains and by shooing away the ‘Bharadwaj’ (Greater Coucal) bird when he calls upon me. They reward me with their melodious calls and assume coquettish postures for my amusement.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The other residents of my garden include sunbirds, sparrows, doves and crows. The sparrows nest in the eaves, the doves in the storehouse rafters, the crows somewhere in the ad hoc repairs of the roof in my backyard and the sunbirds I know not where.

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

It is during the hot hours of the day when I find my most interesting guests. Sometimes it is a Roller perched on a branch under the tree enjoying the coolness just under the canopy where the loo cannot reach directly. On other occasions its a White-browed Fantail, about whom I am constantly admonished by birdwatchers not to refer as a flycatcher any more. Let him catch the two-winged insects, but he must NOT be named as such, declares one soul who fixes me with a glare as if I had just used the much-abhorred ‘n_’ word in a congregation of politically correct citizens.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

During the hot hours of the garden, the creatures are to be found in the shadiest, coolest places. Some, for no conceivable reason why, try other methods. The squirrel who lives in my garden is one such. At this time the birds cling to the shade but off the ground, the jirds are deep underground while Wally the squirrel, so named because he scarfed walnut kernels from her one day, insists on remaining on the sandy floor in the dappled shade below the tree. So to remain in that spot, he resorts to all kinds of tricks. Sometimes, he is on his belly with four hot feet off the ground. Sometimes he grasps the tree trunk while standing on his hind-feet. Intent on his cooling tricks, he fails to notice the bucket of water I send halfway across the garden. Suddenly sodden, he is shocked for an instant before taking off up the tree but I do hope I have helped him remain cool.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

One doesn’t quite expect to find butterflies in the desert but they were present alright. The common danaids were present since their foodplant the Aak or Calotropis was present. In my garden. Every day I saw tiny blues which I discovered to be the Dark Grass Blue Zizeeria lysimon. There was also a Pioneer which stayed awhile and moved on. Insect life must exist in greater variety than one expects small pockets in the desert as I also saw a wasp meticulously scour the garden presumably for caterpillars.

The Dark Grass Blue

The Dark Grass Blue

The visiting Pioneer

The visiting Pioneer

The wasp on the hunt!

The wasp on the hunt!

The star of the garden is, of course, the jird. Most people call him ‘gerbille’ or ‘kangaroo mouse’; he is neither. His short, rounded ears, chubby body, long thinly haired tail with dark tassel, and shorter legs than one would expect of a mouse looking like a miniature kangaroo, he is the cutest of desert creatures in my garden.

Meet the jird!

Meet the jird!

One day he turned up in my newly developed garden strolling in as if he owned the place. This was followed by a detailed reconnaissance on his part which culminated with the selection of a spot by the gate where there was adequate shade available. He then proceeded to dig as swiftly, continuously and urgently as he could, realising the risk he faced of being without a bolt-hole. Every few minutes or so, whenever he felt unsafe or uneasy, he would pause and sit upright, facing this way and later that, till he was certain danger had passed. Then he would resume with renewed vigour. Sometimes his head was not seen as it was buried deep but the rear part of his body and his feet were rapidly jerking upwards above the ground level ejecting a constant stream of sand from the hole. Finally, the burrow was done but it was becoming dark.

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Tired but satisfied, he went to have a sip in the newly installed water-bowl but instead sat up at the edge and shrieked angrily. Peering to see what was the problem, I espied Mr and Mrs Todarmal stolidly sitting in the water. Only after I had driven off the indignant toads and changed the water, and also hidden myself in the verandah, would the jird take his sip of water.

The Toadar Mals

The Toadar Mals

Now, master of all he surveys, he shows himself during the day only when it is not too hot. Then he emerges from his burrow, does his personal grooming and then clambers up the side of the bowl to drink his water. Thirst satisfied, he seeks to satisfy his palate. This he does by raiding the bird-seed spilled over the edge of the feeder tray or by nibbling pieces of grass sitting outside his burrow. Should another jird enter the garden, there is a thorough free-for-all until he has vanquished the interloper.

One day I saw another slightly smaller jird and realised he had a mate. But alas, I was not fortunate enough to see their progeny as the military authorities cottoned onto the fact that I was enjoying myself thoroughly and decided to remedy the fact by posting me to the North East.

The honeymooners

The honeymooners

Though I am no longer physically present in the desert, in my mind’s eye I can still return to enjoy those pleasurable moments that were once my good fortune to experience.

The Tribes on my Frontier

15 January 2009

Having moved into a quiet bungalow in the College campus, I looked forward to a pleasant interlude after all the years of toil. Very large in my scheme of enjoyable solitude was my garden; still coming up after a marathon of planting by my father-in-law and now blooming from some TLC after a couple of years of neglect. What can be better than a quiet Sunday morning snooze on a garden chair in the lawn or an afternoon 40 winks on the diwan under the verandah shade before a refreshing cup of tea emerges forth from the house lovingly proferred by wifey. Paradise, I thought and began to enjoy it all. Alas, it was too good to be true. For you see, I had not accounted for the tribes on my frontier!

They creep up on you unsuspectingly. One drowsy Sunday morning, with head nodding, I heard a plop on the small teapoy in front of me. It was one of the avian tribesmen, golden and black in colour, making an offering to the great sahab of his guano. The wretch not only spoilt my newspaper but thoroughly woke me up with a musical trill which brought my son, Aashay, out saying ”Oh look Pappa, its a golden oriole!” I ask you would you forgive Lata Mangeshkar or any other heavenly singer if she crept up on your slumber in the garden and blasted you in the ear no matter how melodiously she sang. You would despatch her rather quickly, but with a reputation for being a bird-lover, I was forced to smile to match my son’s enthusiasm. It seemed that the bird would never stop singing! By the time it left, I couldn’t sleep any more.

I tried the early afternoon instead, and found a green red-whiskered barbet delightfully tapping out his monotonous beat on the dead tree next to my garage. Finding a dirty look instead of appreciation, he cringed and flew off but sent big brother, a Maratha woodpecker, instead. Louder, bossier, and tapping fast enough to get him an interview in any workshop, dirty looks were of no avail as he had his speckled back to me. Words of abuse did not get him to lower his red cockade. I shook the tree violently and sent off this ruffian ‘Katphora’. But it was too late, I was wide awake.

Few things gave these creatures solidarity as their endeavour to disturb my well earned repose. One rainy afternoon, braving the occasional leak and rejoicing at the absence of birdsong, I had barely settled down when a large shiny black carpenter bee, no doubt an MES employee, came inspecting the rotting rafters of the verandah. He buzzed loudly around me ignoring the frantic swats from my newspaper. He paused overhead as if to say, hey Bud, you know I have no sting, let the rain stop and I’ll be out of here before you can sing honeybee. At long last, the rain stopped and the bee went away but now the soporific patter of a rain shower was replaced by a mismatched drip drap of different series of drops with one freshly born stream created just for anointing me. It was useless, I moved into the house.

As I had worked very hard for this pleasure, there was no way I was going to let these pesky aborigines deprive me. So one day I selected a nice hammock under the Gliricidia trees, but rushed back very soon as I had forgotten the carnivorous mosquitoes of CME who descended on me like the hordes of Genghis Khan on an unsuspecting Central Asian city.

The large cemented patio at the back of the house finally seemed to do the trick and in the warm sunlight I blissfully entered the jungle of my dreams. A soft rustling disturbed me. I ignored it awhile hoping it would subside but it persisted. At last I blinked awake to stare into the astonished faces of a pair of mongooses taking some quality timeout together. They looked at me as would a pair of Burmese natives if suddenly a pot-bellied laughing Buddha statue of their pagoda suddenly came to life. They did a disappearing act worthy of Houdini but not before a bunch of lascivious ‘sathbhais’ or large grey babblers in the ‘Parijaat’ tree beyond, who had been ogling the svelte mongooses, set up a devil of a cackle on being deprived of their entertainment. I rushed inside into the dark shadows of my bedroom for some solace but it was not to be – the neighbourhood tomcat encouraged by my daughter Aditi’s daily offerings of milk had alerted my pet dog Tashi with predictable results. Sometimes you just can’t win. Seriously, its almost enough to put you off wildlife.

Note. This blog entry is dedicated to the late Edward Hamilton Aiken, naturalist and writer extraordinary, whose classic account of nature in Kutch holds the same title as this piece. Read more about him at the blog entry above.

Solifugids ko salaam!

13 January 2009

(Hindi  :  Hail the Solifugids!)

In my family, it is usually my son, Aashay, or me who exclaims at the beauty of a bird or goggles at the Chinkara loitering amongst the dunes. My daughter Aditi, is the sophisticate, who has a been-there, done-that attitude towards this whole ‘animal thing’. Animals do not interest this ten year old; she is into horror films, the more gory and Gothic the better. So it was with some surprise that during a trip in 2006 to the Jaisalmer desert, where I was posted, that Aditi had an interesting interlude with, of all things, Solifugids.

Solifugids are mysterious arthropods. Unknown to most people, they are misunderstood even amongst those who are familiar with them. I suspect that the only people who might be supposed to know about them, scientists, don’t actually, because till date none of them has bothered to tell me anything about these strange creatures!

What are solifuges, you ask? Don’t worry, I take no offense at your query. Solifuges are large members of the tribe ‘arthropods‘ (meaning jointed creatures). The arthropods consist of the millions of six-legged insects, and the many more-than-six-legged other creatures such as crabs, spiders and the various -pedes. A solifuge is not an insect but one of the others, a relative of the spiders, and other eight-legged creatures, which are referred to as Arachnids. The clan is scientifically so named because of its dislike for the sun. They take refuge from the sun, so Sol (meaning Sun) and refuge (meaning refuge) = Solifuge. Get it?

As far as the common names are concerned, the common people have not quite decided what they resemble more – spiders or scorpions so that they are commonly referred to, both as wind-scorpions and camel-spiders! And sometimes, most insultingly to all solifugids, they are also called sun-spiders or sun-scorpions despite their obvious and lifelong abhorrence of the sun.

If a Solifugid is disturbed by day, he will first of all dart into the coolest shade he can find which may well be your shadow. If you move away and so does your shadow, you should not be surprised to find the solifugid following in order to keep out of the blazing sun. This behaviour can be quite un-nerving to those who don’t know much about Solifugids and has led the birth of many urban legends about Solifugids in Iraq amongst American soldiers.

The desert floor is the hunting ground of these creatures who spend their day deep in the crevices of rocks or nooks amongst roots or wherever they can hide from the heat and light of the Sun. They emerge after dark, still careful to keep in the deep shadows or even deeper, if possible. Being cup or saucer-sized, a Solifugid in the light is guaranteed to get screams from the female members of a party. In actuality, they are completely and totally harmless to man!

Each self-respecting garden in the Thar desert has a solifugid so did my garden in ‘Casa Grande’ as we colloquially referred to my modest bungalow. So it happened one day, as we sat in the garden at dusk with some of the verandah light weakly illuminating patches between our legs and those of the chairs, that a shadowy figure darted in between causing my wife to involuntarily lift and fold her legs onto the chair.

”Ashwin”, she said, ”there is a crab under my feet!”

”Dont worry dear, just a desert crab, I’m sure!” was my enlightened response. Those were the days when I too was ignorant about Solifuges, not having been introduced to any, thank you!

The kids immediately said, ”Where, where?”

But the solifuge wisely decided to stay out of the limelight and so a torch was sent for and obtained. The torch beam was pointed here and there between our legs but with limited success, for, the creature, once illuminated refused to stay put! Now this became a prestige issue for the family. I always maintain that any creepy or crawlie which heads towards us does so at his own embarrasment and risk. The family rallied together and cornered the recalcitrant beast. It was a most curious creature!

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

A solifuge looks like a thorny, bristly, cross between an insect and a large spider. Though it may look poisonous or venomous, it is not. It has an insect-like body but with eight ten legs instead of six, with the forward-most pair of ‘leg’s actually being pedipalps which are used for feeding and capturing prey. The solifugid has a pair of eyes perched closely together at the top of his head and you very soon get the feeling that he understands whatever is happening and knows everything! The solifugid kept moving throughout the garden and we succeeded in getting photographs by night despite my inexperience in photography.

At that point of time my kids were going through a scorpion fetish. The scorpion mania took the form of not just asking questions about scorpions or reading about them, but by incarcerating any scorpion foolish enough to come within ten yards of the two. Aashay in his quiet confident way mastered the art of capturing scorpions safely and painlessly. He would herd a scorpion onto a large piece of cardboard and once the creature got onto it he would place an empty jar upturned over it and flip the cardboard so that the scorpion first found that he was trapped on a cardboard with glass all around, then found himself falling through space into the glass-jar as it was inverted. Many unwary scorpions on venturing out after dark now found themselves part of a glass-jar menagerie. But with Solifugids around, scorpions are small game. Inevitably, desires escalated and it was resolved that there was no reason why they should not catch a Solifugid, so the scorpions were gratified to gain clemency, a larger piece of cardboard and a larger jar were procured and in due course of time the Casa Grande solifugid was trapped!

''Soli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family.

''Solli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family. Note his pointed jaws which are chelicerae. He has two above and two below which have a strong pincer grip.

Aditi promptly declared that the scorpions had been Dada’s pets so this pet was hers! This was violently contradicted and like siblings the world over the two feuded and had a fierce yelling match with accusations and counter-accusations. The matter was finally resolved with a truce suggested by the Missus that the Solifugid was to be shared till they procured another when they each would have their own! My forceful remonstrations that while by catching the Solufugid they had proved a point but that keeping it would not be a good idea, were not even acknowledged by anyone.

If you have a pet, it must have a name. So Solifugid number One was promptly named ”Soli”! The Solifugid then proceeded to become the darling of our lives. It had a large plastic bread-box as a temporary home. Here he paraded while he was inspected and examined and shown to anyone within range!

Solli took grave exception to being disturbed. Even a finger extended towards him outside the translucent box angered him. Then he would sway back and forth on his legs waving his forward pair threateningly and gnashing his jaws in a up-down motion. At one time, he took such an exception to a toothbrush waved at him that he jumped and almost succeeded in escaping out of the box. This performance increased his value and he became a dearer pet to Aditi.

Gesturing fiercely with his front legs!

Gesturing fiercely with his pedipalps!

The very next day, another Solifugid, this time a juvenile was caught in a neighbouring compund, and there was another fight before it was decided as to which Solifugid belonged to whom. The juvenile then underwent the indignity of being christened ”Rustam”. Rustam was overall smaller in size, his legs were proportionally smaller, he was more docile or well-behaved but he was never quite as interesting as ”Solli”.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

That night I had nightmares of finding myself sharing the bed with a solifugid instead of my wife! Fortunately for all concerned, the Solifugids had resolutely refused all offers of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food so that I could lay down the law. The kids agreed very reluctantly to release them but not without an elaborate release ceremony the following evening. Though Rustam and Solli had ended their membership of the Baindur family, Solli continued to be seen on his night-time hunts in the garden.

Free at last!

Free at last!

Soli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Solli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Thus ended the saga of the strangest pets that our family had!

The beetle which changed colours

9 January 2009

One comes across the wonders of natures almost accidentally. In June 2006, on the thirteenth to be precise, my son Aashay and I had driven along the Pokaran – Jaisalmer road to look at Tawny Eagles, who are easily found every few hundred metres perched on the wires or poles. On the way back, we stopped to say hello to a local acquaintance. He stood at his present place of labour, a dolomite mine the concession of which he had taken. The mine, near Chacha village, some 20 odd kms from Pokaran, consisted of an area approx 200 yards in diameter in the middle of which there was a large pit some ten yards across and about ten feet deep. Inside, the pit had tunnels leading from the sides which my friend claimed were quite long and winding and undermined almost all the area of the mine. On the surface, occasional holes with large piles of white dolomite stones around the entrances hinted at the warren below.

The dolomite quarry where we found the beetle.

The dolomite quarry where we found the beetle.

As fathers are prone to do, conversations turn to worldly matters or ‘shop’ so Aashay went wandering around the mine. A fatherly warning followed Aashay that he should stick to the beaten tracks only.

Fifteen minutes later, I walked upto Aashay to fetch him. It was 8.30 and time that we made our way back home for breakfast. Aashay was bent over, peering at something on the ground. It was a beetle scurrying on the ground.

”Pappa” he said, ”there’s something strange about this beetle!”

We followed it as it meandered amongst through the broken stone and sand. It was beautiful, almost completely white with a few black markings. A white beetle being a novelty, I was keen to get close and take a photograph but the beetle did not cooperate. Realising it was being pursued, the beetle changed tack and now hurried along on a twisting path towards some Aak bushes (Calotropis spp). A picture on the ground was difficult to get so Aashay chased it trying to scoop up the dodging creature. This he did, only to lose it a few seconds later. We did however succeed in taking a few snaps.

What was truly amazing was that the beetle, which was almost completely white when Aashay had spotted it, gradually turned darker and darker until finally it was almost completely black with only a very thin white edging.

The creature finally reached sanctuary – a cluster of Aak roots with twisted branches, dried leaves and small crevices into which it disappeared. The Rajasthani locals who worked the mines told us that the beetle turned black with fright but would recover to its original pattern after 15 minutes or so.

Immediately after we encountered the beetle it began turning black.

Immediately after we encountered the beetle it began turning black.

Scooped up in Aashay's hands for taking a good snap, it has almost turned completely black.

Scooped up in Aashay's hands for taking a good snap, it has almost turned completely black.

Later I put up the images on Wikipedia WikiProject Arthrpods talk page, hoping for an identification. Doug Dynega, an entomologist and museum curator in the States, responded whith what appears to be the key to the mystery:

”It’s a Tenebrionid, but I can’t be certain of the subfamily. From what I can see in the photos, the white “markings” are, like in many desert Tenebs, not markings, but fine cuticular wax deposits. I’d never heard of the beetle being able to change the amount of wax on it, so I have a better explanation, based on what one can observe; the wax layer is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture), and when it does so, it loses its reflectivity. Holding the beetle in your hand will greatly increase the humidity in the airspace near the beetle. This makes some sense as a desert adaptation; when humidity is low, the beetle reflects more sunlight, and when humidity is high, it reflects less. I’ve just never heard of the phenomenon, and can’t confirm it myself. What you need to do is catch one, kill it, and experiment. If it’s that sensitive, even breathing on it should have a noticeable effect. If it can be confirmed, it might even be something to publish, assuming no one has documented it before.”

Sadly, we left the area soon after and could not go back to explore this mystery any further. A pretty little puzzle waiting for someone to unravel it!

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Notes.

1. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License“.

2.  Comment by Doug Dynega published under GFDL copyright from Wikipedia at the Talk page of WikiProject Arthropods on Wikipediaaccessed on 08 Jan 2009: